Ilya Frenkel was born in 1903, in the town of Międzybóż in Podolian Province of the Russian Empire (in present-day Khmelnytskyi Oblast in Ukraine), in a Jewish family. However, Ilya's childhood passed in the town of Kurgan in Tobolsk Province (at present, a regional center in Siberia), where Lev, Ilya's father, had been deported, and where he was later joined by his family.
After the Revolution of 1917, Lev Frenkel, a chemist-bacteriologist, was able to move to Moscow.
Ilya continued his schooling in Moscow. He dropped out of school in 1918, having decided to devote himself to the revolutionary cause. Frenkel joined the Union of Working Youth, and went on to serve in special forces units. He was a machine gunner, and later a political worker.
From 1922, Ilya Frenkel served as secretary of a party cell, combining his party duties with the job of a proofreader at a printshop in Moscow. At that time, he also attended the Faculty of Arts of the Higher Art and Technical Studios (Vkhutemas).
In 1926, Frenkel began to work as a correspondent for the Rabochaya Moskva and Rabochaya Pravda newspapers. Three years later, he became an editor at the Molodaya Gvardiya publishing house. In the early 1930s, having graduated from the Institute of Red Professors, Frenkel moved to Omsk Oblast, where he served as head of a political department, before being assigned to Moscow Oblast.
Throughout these years, Frenkel also wrote poetry. 1935 saw the publication of his first poetry collection, The Song and the Verse, which enjoyed a positive reception among contemporary poets. Shortly thereafter, Frenkel became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers, and later joined the administration of that body.
In 1938, Ilya Frenkel was appointed head of the poetry section of the Novy Mir magazine. In 1939, he was called up for military service, and took part in the Soviet-Finnish Winter War.
Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Major Frenkel once again found himself on active duty, serving as a special correspondent for the frontline newspaper Za Chest Rodiny [For the Honor of the Motherland]. Throughout the war, Frenkel kept writing poems, which enjoyed great popularity among the troops. One of his most celebrated works were the lyrics of the song "Davay zakurim, tovarishch…" [Let's Smoke, Comrade…], which were set to music by the composer Modest Tabachnikov and performed by the famous singer Klavdiya Shulzhenko. Ilya Frenkel was awarded the Orders of the Red Star and the Red Combat Banner, as well as some medals.
After the end of the war, Frenkel returned to Moscow. For the rest of his life, he remained a prolific and popular writer, and he also translated poetry. In 1984, he published his autobiography, The River of Ages.
Ilya Frenkel died in Moscow in 1994.